When times are hard, we look for the helpers. Setting a great example for us all is a local 10th grader who spends his free time raising money to help kids facing food insecurity. Ben Hofer, 15 years old, is in his third year of successful fundraising and this year he’s partnered with Central Texas Food Bank to really amp up the critical mission.
In 2019, Hofer became aware of the more than 5,000 Austin ISD students with lunch debt, so he started a fundraiser with a goal of $3200. He raised over $10,000 and $6,000 the following year.
Of course, this year, with most kids at home and not in-person school, lunch debt isn’t the issue – but there will still be many hungry students. Even with school district and food bank programs in place, people fall through the cracks during the long holiday season. Hofer’s current fundraiser, Lunch Counts! Food Bank, aims to raise funds for kids who may not have enough food during holidays such as Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, and more.
We chatted with Hofer about his inspiration, efforts, and future plans.
Austin Chronicle: Please tell me, in your words, how you first became aware of the local food insecurity, and why it inspired you to take action.
Ben Hofer: I've volunteered with mobile food banks through my school, with my family, and through Generation Serve when I was younger so I knew that there were lots of people who needed food in Central Texas. In school during 8th grade, we all had to choose a topic to research called "Project Citizen" and were encouraged to choose something that impacted the local community. I ended up seeing some videos on news sites about "lunch shaming" – where kids are shamed in various ways because they don't have money to pay for lunch like having their lunch thrown away in front of them, having to wear a hand stamp around school, and other things – and wondered if that was happening in Austin. After speaking with people in AISD administration and food services, I was glad to learn that AISD does not do any kind of lunch shaming but they did have many kids who had lunch debt. I started to find out which schools had the most kids with lunch debt and learned that in many cases, the families simply could not pay the debt.
I've never had to worry about having food or being able to pay for lunch at school and think that all kids should be able to have a healthy lunch without worrying about how they are going to pay because it's so important to do well in school. I also learned so many kids in Austin, Del Valle, and other areas rely on free and reduced lunch programs, but there are many that don't qualify and still face issues of food insecurity.
I was inspired to take action because I've always thought that lunch is an essential part of the day and after speaking with people at the schools in AISD and DVISD, I learned that they would take whatever I raised and apply it to the debt so that parents and kids wouldn't have to worry about it. I was excited to think that I could take this worry away and do something for kids like me. I knew that friends and family would be generous but could have never imagined the publicity I would have received and the amount of funds I would raise – over $16,000 in 2 years!
AC: How do you balance all of your 10th grade activities while also running a successful fundraiser? Do you have any words of advice for fellow youth looking to make a difference in their city?
BH: School comes first of course but I set aside time to work on my fundraiser during study halls and the weekends. I also put a plan together at the beginning to remind myself of certain things that need to be done like launching the website, publicising, asking for sponsors, and things like that.
Yes, I've realized that kids can really make a difference in their communities but you have to have a good idea of what you want to do and be comfortable with making calls, asking other people with connections to make introductions, providing updates and thanking people. If you want to spread the word and get more donations, you should probably try to go talk to different organizations in town to see if they will help you. But you can always start with friends and family! Maybe in the future I will set up my own website but it's pretty easy to set up online fundraisers with sites like GoFundMe and JustGiving.[image-2-left]
AC: How has the pandemic shifted your goals in terms of raising money? I understand you pivoted from wiping out lunch account debts to working with the Food Bank. In your words, why is the Food Bank such a critical resource for people in Austin this year, perhaps more than any previous year?
BH: I decided to do something different because more kids have become eligible for free or reduced lunch, at least in AISD, but also because kids aren't in school as much this year due to Covid. But, people are still experiencing hunger issues and even more this year because many people have lost their jobs. I'm sure many people in the area have seen news reports about long lines to get food from food banks in Texas. I thought it would be best this year to partner with the Central Texas Food Bank because they have the experience of getting food to lots of people all over the area. I've spoken to Mark Jackson and Amelia Long at the Food Bank, and they are gearing up to distribute meals to school age kids in a variety of ways this year because the need is so big – more mobile food pantries, giving families meals for 7 days to cover long breaks, and other things. The Food Bank helps 340,000 Texans a month and one-third of these are kids.
AC: What would you tell our readers to really drive home the importance of supporting local students going into this holiday season (and beyond)?
BH: I think many of us don't realize how fortunate we are to have food during the holidays and many of us talk about fancy dinners but some people don't even have the basics. I've found that people are very generous and want to help when they know their donations will benefit kids directly and so I would love to raise as much as I can to make sure that local kids have enough to eat, especially when schools are on break.
AC: You seem pretty mature already, but I'm curious if the experience you've gained over the past few years doing this important work has inspired your future education and career paths. How, if at all, do you hope to use the skills you've acquired to continue making a difference in the world?
BH: I was interested in medicine and health even before this, but working on these kinds of issues has made me want to look into being a doctor and helping people in some way. I was able to see how health issues impact the community first hand and meet several medical professionals when I was awarded the Dell Medical School Health Leadership Award in 2019. I think learning how to publicise and gather people for a good cause will help me in other ways to make a difference. Any way people help other people in the world is great but I've realized that you don't have to have a lot of money to start something and you can focus on your local community because there are a lot of people who need help here.
AC: Anything else you'd like our readers to know?
BH: I would just say to please go to the justgiving page mentioned above and donate whatever you can because every amount helps! For those who are extra generous this holiday season, I also just received gift cards from 2 local sponsors. The first donor to give $250 will receive a $150 Uchi/Uchiko gift card and the first 2 people to donate $100 will receive a $50 Tiff's Treats gift card.
[Editor's note: We corrected the spelling of Mr. Hofer's name.]
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